Joseph Smith Polygamy: A Comparison of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s Practice of Plural Marriage

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Joseph Smith Polygamy: Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s Approaches to the Practice of Plural Marriage

The early emergence of Joseph Smith’s revelation regarding plural marriage, dating back to 1831 just after the establishment of the church, reflects a complex struggle within him. His commitment to his wife and his reluctance to betray her created a challenging dilemma. While there are indications of a potential relationship with a young woman, Fanny Alger, records on Joseph Smith polygamy remain minimal. Unlike Brigham Young’s later and more open practice of polygamy, Joseph’s approach was cautious and quiet. Joseph did not have offspring with anyone apart from his first wife, Emma Smith, whereas Brigham Young had multiple children with his plural wives.

Abrahamic Covenant

Joseph was thought to have received revelation regarding plural marriage (Joseph Smith polygamy) as early as early 1831. That’s right after the church was organized, a year later. And I think he struggled with it. I think he really understood and as time went by and he wasn’t able to practice that, he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He loved his wife and he in no way wanted to betray her. 

There are rumors and evidence to suggest that he did, in fact, have a relationship with a young woman that was a servant or a maid – Fanny Alger. It’s not entirely known for sure. In fact, that’s one of the interesting things about Joseph Smith polygamy – he did not want to keep a record of it. Not a lot of journal entries and not a lot of public certificates. And so it’s hard for us to know exactly how many wives he did marry and what their relationship entailed. So that’s tricky.

The Difference Between Brigham Young Polygamy and Joseph Smith Polygamy 

And the other thing I think is important is that Joseph’s practice of polygamy was very different than Brigham Young’s practice of polygamy.

How would you classify the differences between those two?

Well, I think Joseph, being the first, was very timid and scared, especially of his wife, which he should have been. And he was told by the Lord that this needed to be kept sacred or confidential or private, and it was not to be spoken about publicly. And I think that when it was spoken about publicly, it was through gossip. And that’s when the troubles came. And they came and they came with a vengeance. And the prophet is going to end up in the Carthage jail a year later, and this is going to be one of the main trigger points that escalates the martyrdom.

I think that in that sense, I think Emma perhaps was keeping her covenant and not talking about polygamy or plural marriage, even with her sons as they grew older, and denied that they had ever practiced that. She was a little distraught about Brigham Young and his practice of polygamy, which became very public in 1852. She did not want to be caught with that stigma, which was huge, culturally, religiously, all sorts of ways. 

I would also say Joseph’s approach, like I said, he didn’t have kids with any of his other wives, whereas on the other side, Brigham Young was very about procreation and multiplying and replenishing the earth, particularly in Utah. In fact, I heard someone say that 20% of the members of the church today are descendants of polygamists. 

Joseph Smith Polygamy: Joseph’s Practice of Plural Marriage

Joseph was very selective about how he invited people, and he was also very careful about encouraging them to get their own witness or testimony of it. And for example, Sarah Kimball, when Joseph asked her to become his plural wife, she said, no way, and she didn’t. And she remained a faithful member of the church and was a very prominent leader in the release society in Salt Lake City.

I think another interesting thing, though, that I don’t think we can forget is this. Let’s look at the timeline, okay? In May of 1843, Joseph and Emma were sealed for eternity. Now, they before that, had considered themselves with an eternal love, but Joseph, as I said, was learning step by step how this all worked. And so they were sealed for eternity. In July, Emma receives this revelation and reads it and is very upset about it. So things happen between May and July, and then things happen between July and September, and we don’t really know much about it. Emma, if she kept a journal, we don’t have it on those carriage rides, not a recorder. The carriage wasn’t bugged.

But we do know this. On September 20, 1843, Emma became the first woman to receive her temple endowment and initiatory, and she then became the woman who provided that, who gave that or led that ordinance for all the other women. And I think that’s really significant. 

By the way, I learned this, and I think we all learned this in seminary, that Jesus called Abba when he was in the garden of Gethsemane, which means papa or daddy, but we don’t often recognize that the Hebrew word for mom or mama is Emma. And I think that’s very significant. And I really think that she had a mother heart, and she learned how to expand that mother heart in very significant ways. In fact, I would even go so far to say, as the sands of the sea and the stars in the sky.

Many of you may be familiar to one degree or another with some of these practices of plural marriage in Nauvoo and before. Jenny, what would you say, as a church historian, to people who have some serious and valid concerns or valid doubts when they hear things and then find out it’s true that Joseph was sealed to Heber C. Kimball’s 14-year-old daughter, or that he was sealed to married women?

First of all, I have to say I’m with you. I don’t get it. I don’t understand all of it. And one thing I learned in graduate school is that we all look through the lens of presentism. We’re all looking at 21st-century views of marriage, and Hollywood has affected us and influenced our views of marriage. And so it’s really hard to separate ourselves from that, and perhaps understand Joseph Smith polygamy. Also, we have to recognize that these women receive their own testimonies and witnesses of it. And because we haven’t been asked to live it, we have not received those testimonies or witnesses. So I think that’s important. 

But it’s true that Joseph did engage himself or connect himself to several women that we might not consider proper. The nearly 15-year-old daughter of Newell K. Whitney and Elizabeth Anne Whitney, we have a little bit more information about, because they did not burn the letter that they were told to burn. And the ceiling is beautiful. It’s really connecting the Smith family with the Whitney family. And they were such good friends. In fact, when Joseph and Emma moved to Kirtland, Newell Kay, and Elizabeth Ann invited them into their home and took care of them. And years later, when Elizabeth Anne and Newell Kay moved to Nauvoo, Penniless, Joseph, and Emmanuel brought them into their home. And so it’s a beautiful friendship, a beautiful relationship. 

And so when he is sealed to their nearly 15-year-old daughter Sarah, it is really an effort to connect the families. Now, I do have to say something else that helps us remove our presentism. This is not an early age for marriage. It’s young, but it is a marriageable age. It’s not weird at that time. So that’s something important that we need to consider very helpful. 

Joseph Smith Polygamy: The Practice of Polyamory

Joseph also was sealed to women who had husbands, and that’s called polyamory. And it’s a little confusing. I don’t understand all of it. There was one that he was sealed to. We know Zaina Huntington Jacobs Young. After Joseph died, she was sealed to Brigham Young, and that was another practice that was common. Hebersy Kimball and Brigham Young married many of Joseph and Hiram’s wives. 

But something interesting about Zaina and her first husband, Henry. She had two sons with him, so it wasn’t necessarily an awful marriage, but she later says it was an unhappy marriage. Brigham Young sends Henry on a mission, and Henry writes this beautiful letter to Zaina. He loves her and he knows that she’s been sealed to Brigham. And he says there will be twistings and turnings in this life, but everything will work out in the next life. And I think that’s so beautiful. That gives me a lot of hope and promise that it will all work out. I think once we’ve left behind our mortal understanding, our 21st-century understanding, our presentism, and our limited scope of time and space that we’ll see things a little differently.

The intent of this blog is not to answer every question and every concern and resolve every issue regarding either Joseph Smith polygamy or Brigham Young’s practice of polygamy. The idea is to acknowledge the fact that it’s messy, it’s muddy. We don’t have all the answers. But it is fascinating to note that the people who were the closest to it in Nauvoo, both the men and the women involved, those people inside the church were not up in arms against Joseph. It’s usually the people who have left the church. It’s the John C. Bennett’s. It’s very shortly after this William Law and Wilson Law who had known about it. They’re the ones who are coming, but nobody’s claiming impropriety from Joseph in the Nauvoo period that are in the church. It was always a step away from Joseph where the trouble came up with people that were unhappy with him and then were able to unravel different pieces of that and they would manipulate it in every way. And we know that is always the case. That is like the law of opposition in all things, that you always have that opposition.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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